I really love the “new” National Museum of Singapore. I think what architect Mok Wei Wei has done with this space is simply fantastic. He took an aging institution, preserved and updated its best and most beautiful parts, and then added a vast, striking and modern extension, turning it into one of the country’s most iconic landmarks. Over the past year, I’ve visited the museum a lot, both for work and for fun. It really has become one of my favourite places in town.
But one thing I’ve always felt was just a little wrong was that the museum didn’t boast an Asian restaurant. In my opinion, a country’s national museum should have an F&B outlet that offers food from that country – or at least from its region. Until recently, none of the outlets in the museum catered to this need. One serves upscale European food. Another was originally going to offer a lunch menu inspired by regional colonial classics but the establishment’s owner ended up deciding that there was more money in serving booze and turned the place into a overly-hip bar. (I’m told this place will close this month, re-opening sometime early next year as a fusion bistro helmed by Chef Anderson Ho.) The museum’s only cafe serves one – yes, just one – local dish per day, and only because the museum’s director suggested rather strongly that they should offer some local food.
Fortunately, the museum has a new restaurant. And not just any restaurant. Chef Chan’s is the latest incarnation of one of Singapore’s most well-known and respected Chinese (Cantonese) restaurants. Chef Chan Chen Hei, one of Singapore’s most beloved chefs, first made his name at the Pan Pacific’s Hai Tien Lou. He then struck out on his own, opening the first Chef’s Chan in a Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association clubhouse in the suburbs. The place was an instant hit and he soon moved the restaurant from the heartland to the heart of the city. The second Chef Chan’s occupied a huge space in Odeon Towers, a modern office building facing the Raffles Hotel.
The new Chef Chan’s, by comparison, is small. It has a tiny public seating area and just a few private rooms. Surprisingly, a large chunk of the restaurant’s space is being used not to seat customers but to show off some of the chef’s remarkable collection of Chinese antiques. Dining here feels like you are eating in the middle of a very luxe and very private gallery – which is not at all a bad thing given the restaurant’s location.
My wife S, my parents, and I checked out the restaurant this weekend. My father was a regular at Chef Chan’s previously and he advised us to order what he considers the chef’s very best items: crispy roasted farmer chicken; shark’s fin soup with crab meat and crab roe; and black pepper beef. In addition to these three specialties, we also had a Shanghainese tofu, which was really tasty but also pretty funky – it looked like chopped up pieces of sponge that had been soaked in an admittedly delicious sauce. The beef was excellent. I would have personally liked it a little less peppery, but I’m also a bit of a wimp when it comes to hot food. The soup was delicious. It was savoury and rich and filled with yummy, luxurious things. The overall winner, though, was the chicken. This was without question the best dish we tasted and may just be one of the very best roast chickens I have ever eaten in my whole life.
A lot of Chinese chefs serve crispy roast chicken. But few do it as well as Chan Chen Hei. In his hands, this simple dish is a work of art. The skin is paper thin, crisp and full of flavour. All the fat (which usually appears below the skin) has been magically rendered away. The meat is soft, tender, juicy and a joy to eat. Despite this being the last of our courses (and after the soup I felt pretty full), I made a complete pig of myself.
I’ll be honest. I personally haven’t eaten at Chef Chan’s previous places too often. So, I can’t really talk with any real authority about his other dishes. But my dad has and he reiterated more than a few times that I’d be best served sticking to the 3 dishes that he recommended. And given just how darned good that crispy roast chicken was, I think I may just do what he says (for once). Or at least, I’ll always order the chicken and maybe vary what vegetable S and I have on the side.
National Museum of Singapore
01-06, 93 Stamford Road
Tel: +65 6333 0073